On December 26, Sam Allison will become the first black referee in fifteen years to take charge of a Premier League match when Sheffield United take on Luton Town.
For semi-professional referee Ashley Hickson-Lovence, the appointment is “tinged with a bit of sadness”, because he believes it is something that “should happen more regularly”.
“I think it’s a huge achievement but there’s still a long way to go,” Hickson-Lovence told BBC Sport.
The football association has set itself the goal of increasing the diversity of match officials in the football pyramid and wants an increase of 1,000 female referees and 1,000 black or Asian referees at all levels within three years.
Former firefighter Allison, 42, was appointed to the competition by the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), and while this is the first step towards the FA goal, why has it taken 15 years?
‘Oh, it’s a black referee’
The first black referee in the Premier League was Uriah Rennie. The Sheffield magistrate presided over more than 300 top-flight matches between 1997 and 2008.
Match of the Day pundit Ian Wright was playing for Arsenal when Rennie arrived in the top flight and told BBC Sport how he remembered speaking to teammates about the arrangement.
“Well, obviously at the announcement it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, it’s a black referee’. It was more like, ‘Oh, it’s a black referee,'” the former England striker, 60, recalled.
“I always noticed that when I played with him [as the referee] there was no real interaction.
“With some of the other referees you could talk to them, chat a little bit. And I think the pressure he would probably have been under – to not have that kind of interaction with the other black players – was very intense must have been, simply because of what people might say.”
Rennie took charge of his final Premier League match on the final day of the 2007–08 season.
Standing at 6 feet tall and a practitioner of kickboxing and aikido, Rennie was an imposing figure who the players quickly noticed would be more than at ease during an exchange.
Yet Rennie’s appointment failed to usher in the next generation of referees of black, Asian or mixed descent.
“That’s a big surprise because there are Asian and black referees,” said Wright, an advocate for diversity in the men’s and women’s games. ‘Maybe we need to look at the path to bringing them to that elite level.
“There can’t be that many around, and that many people can’t get through. We need to find out where the blockage is.
“When we look at Uriah and his performance, he was a good referee. When people look at it and say, ‘Can he handle that kind of pressure as a black referee?’ Yes he can.
“So black referees can do that, Asian referees can do that and referees of color can do that. So you wonder where the block is.”
‘The referee graveyard’
PGMOL chief referee Howard Webb described Allison’s appointment as a ‘pivotal moment’ for the sport – three days after Rebecca Welch became the first female referee at a Premier League match and took charge of Burnley’s 2-0 win at Fulham. .
“They deserve their chance; they have refereed very well in the Football League (EFL) and the Championship,” said Webb.
“Sam is a talented referee. Perhaps he will serve as a role model for other young people who thought refereeing might not be for them.
“Refereeing can be for anyone who loves the game and has the required qualities.”
According to the Football Association, there are 32,000 referees working in England at all levels of football.
Just over 8% identify as black, Asian or mixed heritage, with that figure dropping to 4% for the men’s professional game.
Hickson-Lovence dreamed of becoming a professional footballer. When those ambitions fell short, he saw refereeing as a way to continue with the sport he loved.
The 32-year-old is currently a match official at provincial level and promotion could see him oversee matches in the National League.
“Level four on the refereeing ladder is known as ‘the referee’s graveyard’. And even the connotation of the graveyard is very fitting, because reaching level four meant the death of my refereeing career,” said Hickson-Lovence.
“Because that’s how far I got before I quit.”
He retired from refereeing in 2019 after feeling his career was in limbo. Hickson-Lovence says his experience is typical of black referees who often find it difficult to progress beyond this stage.
“I did everything I could to appear professional, especially when I had an observer,” he adds.
“And I started noticing certain things and hearing certain things that would imply there was more going on than just my ability on the football field.”
Removing potential blockages in the system
Traditionally, referees had to have worked at every step of the English football pyramid before being considered for promotion to the Premier League – and that usually took more than a decade. But officials can now be prosecuted quickly.
Various factors are taken into account when promoting or demoting referees. Hickson-Lovence said when flagged by an FA-appointed monitor, he often felt he was being judged unfairly.
“I can name 10 other referees who came through the system at the same time as me and they have similar stories, anecdotes and experiences of being written off,” he said.
He said he felt like they were sometimes ignored and judged in a very demeaning way.
“Little comments started piling up. Comments about my hair, which at the time was a high-top hairstyle. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate it as a black person or as a person of color – hard to put my finger on it what it is.” is precise.
“But you know – you just know,” he added.
In response, a Football Association spokesperson said: “We want English football to truly reflect our modern and diverse society in all areas of the game.
“In July 2023, we launched our new refereeing strategy, which includes our commitment to making refereeing more inclusive.
“One of the core pillars of this new strategy is our plan to significantly improve the diversity of our match officials across the football pyramid, both by encouraging more people from under-represented groups to referee and by removing potential blockers in the system taking away that will make progress more difficult.
“Recruiting, retaining and developing referees from all backgrounds is fundamental to our new strategy, and we want to ensure that everyone can feel valued and supported at all levels of the game.”
Hickson-Lovence recently returned to refereeing and said he wanted to use his experiences to help others navigate the officiating pyramid.
He also says he is encouraged by the PGMOL’s actions lately, and that it is important to have black officials because seeing Rennie on television inspired him to pursue this as a possible career.
“The FA are doing really good things,” he said.
“And the appointment of Sam Allison really epitomizes some of the changes that are happening and the positive steps that are happening.”
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